Vol.4 No. 2
If you don't love Esa's music, then you're a miserable schmuck.
The lustrous sounds of Esa Ruoho AKA LACKLUSTER
by Walt Miller
The latest sensational music from Finland is not austere, minimalism ala Pan Sonic. (ok, there's Vladislav Delay, but let's not get off track here.) Nor is it the bizarre electronic-soul hybrids of Jimi Tenor. No, we're talking about bedroom musician Esa Ruoho who is one of the first signings on the deFocus label, and whose EZ listening computer sounds shine with soft, beguiling (some say innocent) melodies and unpretentious charm.
Recommended is his full length, "Container", which collects Lackluster's best material [Ruoho himself may argue otherwise], drawing from a period through the late 1990's during which he was active in the largely internet-based and clandestine 'demo-scene'. As a member of multimedia collectives like Orange and Tpolm [whom we'll learn about later], Ruoho did much composing on his own, finally becoming satisfied enough with his music to release material on net label's Monotonik and Mono 211. Once limited to a tiny audience - the tracks were only available online or on a CDR limited to 100 copies - Lackluster's music made it's way to Clair of deFocus, and the rest is history. Ruoho-hero Andy Weatherall is said to be a big fan. Muzik magazine writes sugary accolades and makes B12 comparisons. Does it get much better?
We got in touch with our man, Esa Ruoho, to find out. Curiously, he seems a bit uncomfortable with the pressure. At times, he seems surprised at the success - almost as if some mistake has been made and people will discover that he's not as good as everyone says. (one has to wonder about the origin of Ruoho's moniker) But his agonizing and second-guessing are refreshing. He honestly cares that the listener gets his money's worth, something that you don't hear from artists too often.
How did you get your start making music?
94-95 I tried to do tracks.. studied tested practiced for a few years. I ran a bbs for 7 years after '92, and collected a whole lot of modules (still have them lying around.. brilliant stuff!) I got started with making music mainly because I wanted to do something and coding or pixeling just didn't appeal. I think the first 3 or 4 years can be scrapped and forgotten about together.
I am into dancey stuff, mostly house/deep house. Haven't really understood trance/goa, though I was into trance at around 93 or so. I've been listening to computermusic forever, mainly because we've had different computers for forever. 1986 amiga: soundtracker modules, used to wear them out totally. Of course I couldn't listen to any of that stuff at all nowadays cos it's just too silly. Started listening to the radio properly when I accidentally turned into one channel and started hearing what I later on discovered was techno or just plain dance music. I went through the synthesizer greatest period and just grabbed everything from jarre/vangelis/tangerine dream at an early period. Absolutely no recollection how i came across kraftwerk though. Always been into electronic music.
What gear do you use to compose? What is your approach like?
Mainly my computer. I bought a synth this year, but I've just sampled a few things with it, simply too lazy to actualy program it (on the synth I'm a preset fool, should know better than to settle for such).
Mostly (pretty basic) software. Been in a state of flux ever since i released cdr#2. Don't know which program to use really, so can't really get a grip on Buzz or Audiomulch and decide 'this is it, this i'll practice with, this'll satisfy me, this'll work..
Approach: try to do something that works.. mostly i'll melody around.
Do you consider your music, IDM?
It's easy to call my music idm. People might understand. But I refer to it as ambient/easylistening myself, because generally I get a whole lot of people saying my music is background music. So might as well call it that.
Can you tell me about the 'demo-scene' in Finland? Is it exclusive to Finland? Internet based, MP3 trading?
I'd rather not go into this because the demoscene is such a large subject that you can't explain it in a few words. Demoscene is exclusive to the world. US/Canada/UK seem to not be doers but more followers of the scene, which is sad. I'm hopefully not too far wrong if i say that the scene started at around when c64 games started getting cracked and people coded small intros on the beginning of the games, sometimes with just scrollers, sometimes with music and proper graphics too. These later became fullfledged demonstrations, and people started getting into it. I think it's safe to say the scene is nearing it's 20th birthday in a few years. And of course as technology goes, the demoscene is very net-based nowadays. Surely some people on the scene trade mp3s, but, as it's been claimed by many people, the demoscene's basic idea is to push the envelope, to do art (be it code, music or graphics).
What are Orange and Tpolm? How do they fit into the picture?
Orange is a very famous, respectable demogroup which started at around 1994. A few months later, Lassi Nikko (who later became brothomStates) joined. There was always good taste in all that they did, and I hold Orange in high esteem. All the truly active members of Orange during the 95-97 period are _very_ talented. Respect. TPOLM is short for 'The Planet of Leather Moomins' and sometimes it's just easier to go http://www.tpolm.com even tho it might not make any sense to anyone. music, design, art.
How long have you been involved with this demo scene, and are you still?
I have followed the scene from around 1991. Worked on a few small projects with friends, and released them at demo competitionts at parties (some of these parties have gotten _very_ large (three or four thousand people or even more), and have an established image.) I'm still slowly active. If someone asks me for a tune I'll knock up something, but one thing is clear. These aren't Lackluster releases. It's for fun. I'm allowed that, am i not?
Tell me about Monotonik and Mono211? How important was your involvement with Monotonik?
Mono started at around 96, and in 97 Mono was so diverse stylistically that it had to be split into Mono (d+b&triphop-ish) and Monotonik (straight techno/ambient/idm-ish). Mono is a netlabel, which released modules till the first half of 99, and then moved to mp3 only. What they basically do is put out music by people, which i guess is obvious. I wouldn't call monotonik a label, more like a net-label, or a musicgroup as it was called before the word net-label started to gel. I had some contact with Simon Carless, who ran and still runs Monotonik, sent him some 30 or 40 tracks (everything, just to have him comment (he used to do music)) and continued this until something clicked in his head and he wanted to put out 3 tracks by me. This was in 97.
At the moment, the amount of tracks I've released thru Monotonik (modules&mp3) is 25. 97 and 98 were a rather hectic period in my life (as if 99 and 00 haven't been!) so i wouldn't _really_ call some of the tracks put out, umm, 'true' lackluster releases. Of course I did do them, and I did sign as Distance/Lackluster, but I've come across some people who have an album called 'Lackluster: Fin Chip Pimp' available on Napster, which have tracks I've done at around 96-99, which aren't Lackluster releases, which are just me trying out things and learning, mostly with horrible mistakes or straight poppy stuff. And i'm not very content with that. Then again, people are hunting around for old Bogdan Raczynski tracks too, and i don't really feel like pulling out all the old modules that i did before Lackluster. I just don't want people to come and dis Lackluster because of stuff I've done before I was.
How were you signed to Focus?
Clair's boyfriend Simon Walley (aka CiM) dropped a few lines to Mono's message board, some other place, and then eventually mailed me. He had been listening to my releases on Monotonik, Milk and Level-D. This was in Autumn '99. He got Clair to write to me, and I sent her a copy of cdr#2. After a month or so I was sent a list of tracks they wanted to get in audio format, mailed them 2 cdrs and about a few weeks afterwards received a contract for 18 tracks.
Were you a fan of Clear records at that point? How did you feel about being selected for deFocus?
I was aware of Clear, but I wasn't aware of Clair. I still don't own a Clear release, but wish i did. I was very surprised at the interest, and thought it was just someone trying to mess around with my head. I didn't really want to sign the contract but consulted everyone I knew and was convinced that it should be done. I'm embarrassed about some of the tracks put out through deFocus ("IX Pen" and "Krhm" spring to mind immediately), but guess I'm still hoping I could do a real release I could stand behind. After all those small things I made mainly for fun and didn't really tweak around with (improve sound quality-wise?) have been released, and they have, I don't want to give out anything 'just to put it out'. It has to be good, it has to be something I could hear somewhere and not cringe. Still trying to figure out if any such music could emerge.
I am very happy about the focus/defocus thing. Everything about it (apart from putting out some weak tracks) is very good and I'm very content. Hope I can pay back the listeners somehow in a year or two, once I've actually learned to do things better.
Many of the tracks on Lackluster have appeared earlier through Monotonik. Hence, do you look at "Container" as a compilation?
I did it that way because Clair said she wanted to put the tracks out. At some point in time, when I was really trying to look up everything Photek did, I was rather annoyed at the amount of recycling that was going on with different releases, and was like 'no, i'm not going to go there'. After cdr#2, I still had the same opinion, no no, let's not recycle. Then i was just forced to eat my own words and put out stuff. So, apologies to everyone miffed at me about recycling. It was the only material I had at the time. When Clair contacted me, it was a simple case of either say no, and send stuff that i'd be happy with later, save up my own money to buy some essential pieces of equipment.. or bite my tongue and say yes, and perhaps be able to patch things later with better releases (with hopefully some) made with better equipment. Really, was there a choice? Some people tried to convince me that there are people who are really into the tracks, even if I've outgrown them. This probably makes me seem like I was only in it for the money, but.. well, yeah, i did regard it in the first place as a joke, 'take the money and run run run' stylee. Didn't think anyone would actually put out stuff like that.
"Container" is _definitely_ a compilation. I hope to release the actual content album later, when I come up with enough tracks for a good, real album.
The reactions to your Focus stuff have been very positive. Does that motivate you?
It makes things harder. I want to do better stuff. I don't really want to think about the reactions. I read every review I can get my hands on, just to see if anyone understands. But what's the use, only a few magazines actually have reviews that beat the shit out of some records. It's all about selling isn't it? I think people sugar up their reviews. I don't know why.
I go through these phases when I can't do any music at all cos this Focus-releasing thing just distorts me. Don't know what to do, where to go. Can't really blank out and do a track easily. Used to be so much easier. Have to shut away everyone. Too many reviews, too many people commenting on it. Not easy. Yet i yearn for comments, have to see what people think. I think I've decided to stop doing tracks almost every month after the Focus releases, mainly because sometimes there's just not any point. Why do when you can't do what you want to.
Have you started thinking about what your next material will sound like?
I don't want to think. I know i'm going more floaty, more relaxed, more chilly. I can't drop melodies because then there'd be no content. I'm no drum programmer. Can't do technique/technical music. Would feel too silly. Presumably everything i'll do will eventually have the same sort of Lackluster vibe, hopefully. I don't itch to dive into other directions. I itch to DO tracks. What does it matter what style they are. As long as I get kicks out of doing them.
Who are some current artists that you admire?
brothomStates. I can NOT believe that my stuff is put out and his hasn't yet been. Completely undiscovered gem. What is it with people? Bola and Boards of Canada, obviously. Discovered Arovane this year. 2 Lone Swordsmen. Luke Vibert. Squarepusher. There are others but these are the 'main' people. Could also add Plaid and Boulderdash in too. I think I mainly listen to this stuff over and over and over again. But if i had to pick one, it'd turn out into two, which would always turn out into 4. But the three: brothomStates, Boards of Canada, Bola.
Do you follow any of the music of your famous countrymen, like Jimi Tenor and Panasonic? Is there any national pride regarding them, or is there the indifference that is common in the USA?
I used to be into Panasonic but then I started to yearn for the lushness. The wet sound that grabs you inside. The mood. For me Pan(a)sonic is just too try nowadays. Gave away the 3 Sahko releases I had. Jimi Tenor used to get some small press about Tenorwear, and people do tend to give them good reviews and try to understand what they're doing. Some sort of national pride is going on, surely. Jori Hulkkonen would probably be one to add to those 2 people as being known Finnish artists.
Do you think there's anything about Finland (climate, culture, etc) that has an influence on the music that comes out of the country?
Everything influences. You can't pinpoint it. Can't really put a country into a few words, there's no easy way. You can't go and point at the trees, or the lakes and go 'yep, this is why it's so minimal' or 'this is why it's so melodic'. Don't really think if people would go to Finland that they'd understand what in it affects the music either. These are so obscure things it's better not to think about it. And avoid the cliches also.
end of interview
-- Thank you PhinnWEB http://www.phinnweb.org/ for stashing this interview (Esa)